Introducing Cambodia

Since I’m not currently traveling, I’m devoting the next several Sunday blogs to past treks. Today, I start a series about Cambodia. 

In February of 2011, during my Chinese New Year break from teaching English in Zhuhai, China, I flew south to this little–and little-known–country in Southeast Asia. Upon my return to China, I published a series of stories throughout that February and March about my ten jam-packed days in Cambodia.

This was my first piece, released February 23, 2011.

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Introducing Cambodia

“Cambo-what?”

I hear ya, but this was part of the appeal–how little I knew about this country. And what I found out, and what you’re soon to see, is that Cambodia is a big little country. Between its north and south; ancient and modern; proud and tragic, it’s a rich offering.

It’s like that under-rated drama film that just didn’t capture wide public appeal: well-crafted, intriguing, a diamond-in-the-rough that has you leaving deeply affected. Cambodia’s big enough to offer a nice platter of experiences; it’s small enough to give you intimacy with its entirety. It’s a blend of subtle, treasured feelings: freshness and soul of its capital, history and spirit of the temples of Angkor, and the solitude and relaxation of its countryside.

Not surprisingly, I got a ton of great pics. Here are a few teaser shots for ya:


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This nugget of a country is snuggled nicely between Vietnam and Thailand. Of course, the Khmer (the people who inhabit Cambodia) may not agree with the “snuggling” part as they’ve been beaten up by their larger, more powerful neighbors on and off for the last 1500 years.

 

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People all over the world (in increasing numbers) come here mainly for two reasons: the ancient temples of Angkor in the north near Siem Reap and for the capital, Phnom Penh (sounds like “p’nom pen”), further south, which features the nightlife, market, and soul of the country–as well as souls of a recent past, those whose lives were lost during a nightmare-while-awake span of radical rule in the 1970′s.

My first leg on this journey ventured up north to the temples. I then slid southwest by boat down a river passing floating villages (yes, literally floating with floating schools, floating stores, floating churches). My destination at the end of this ride was the sleepy city of Battambang. After lounging there I finished up by heading back to where I started, the capital.

Along my journey there were caves, skulls, monks, crazy food, I crashed a wedding, pop-taught in a school, played with monkeys and crocodiles. And this is just light, surface stuff. By the time we’re through, you’ll have a nice grip on Cambodia. What’s more, you’ll walk away with the lessons that this land lends to those who pay a visit.

First thing I had to do when I landed was change into some shorts—it was warm! After doing so in the airport, I had to find a bus and get up to the city Siem Reap, where the Temples of Angkor have been patiently waiting for me for a cool 1000 years.

It was just me and another fella on the motorcycle taxi shuttle from the airport to the bus station. The stocky, tan young man was a Mexican-born resident of the US working for the World Bank. In trying to understand this country, my companion was a fitting one, for he could outline the economic/political realities for Cambodia today.

Just like you go to the bank to get a mortgage for a home, the World Bank is where Cambodia goes to get a loan for a highway project. It’s how the developing world develops. I wondered why there needs to be such an operation–was a lending institution needed for America and Europe when they developed? But the institution operates to help those behind and having a difficult time catching up.

Naturally, this big-bucks operation plays out in mixed ways: smaller countries have sometimes borrowed foolishly, larger countries have then leveraged this debt for political favors. (Read Confessions of an Economic Hitman for some of the grim realities.) But the World Bank provides a potential way out and seems to be the way things will continue to operate. Interesting stuff, and maybe something we should all spend more time thinking about.

Because he’s an employee for the World Bank, my new friend had himself a UN passport. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, and it comes with perks like lower visa fees.

After our talk, he was able to recommended a place to stay in Siem Reap. What a resource!

I got to the bus station, and up to the temples I went.

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Flat-n-fieldy here in the south.

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Looked like they could use another loan from the Bank.

We observe a land like Cambodia and note its poverty, but I also realized that they lived in conditions that my grandparents enjoyed and endured. My grandfather probably ran around barefoot and in humble clothes like the boy above. Two generations later, America is an entirely different country. So why not Cambodia in twenty years?

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After a day on the bus, we pulled into Siem Reap, a touristy Cambodian city–which means main streets with no traffic lights, electric lines hanging thick overhead like decoration, motorbikes abundant on the roads, and cheap hostels and restaurants along the sides.

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Siem Reap

After finding a hostel, I walked the sidewalks of this warm-temperature, warm-peopled environment. Then I engaged in a cheap thrill along the sidewalk that I had read about and would probably only do while traveling.

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You ever hear about those fish that eat the dead skin off your feet?

They congregate as you hover about the water.

Then they go to town when you submerge.

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Intensely tickling. But you get used to it.

When I was done, my feet felt pretty darn soft, and that’s good ’cause I’d be covering a lot of ground the next two weeks:

 

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I hope you can join me to learn the stories around these photos.

’til next week,

-Brandon

What say you?